“Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds
Whose breath gives life to the world, hear me
I come to you as one of your many children
I am small and weak
I need your strength and wisdom

May I walk in beauty
Make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
And my ears sharp to your voice.
Make me wise so that I may know the things you have taught your children.

The lessons you have written in every leaf and rock
Make me strong——–!
Not to be superior to my brothers, but to fight my greatest enemy….myself

Make me ever ready to come to you with straight eyes,
So that when life fades as the fading sunset,
May my spirit come to you without shame.”

— A Sioux prayer translated by Chief Yellow Lark – 1887

NYX____________________________

Heavy was the world upon her.

The wind muttered something, whisking away her reservations as she garnered a scent reminiscent to freedom.  Fingertips spread, head tilted back, tongue parched–she let out a breath and asked the universe to take what it would of her.  The sunlight lanced into her sensitive eyes and she closed them, seeing their warmth through her eyelids.

It was late afternoon.  Winter had passed, as did Spring.  Summer had just started.

She could see that the northern hills tended shadows amidst their parsed greenery.  But her surroundings were cold and grey, the environment not harboring darkness but being the essence of darkness itself–undivided, unconquered, and stifling.  The Kreut Forest drew harsh divides between the thriving life of the northern lands and its black corruption.

Nyx had just risen from sleep.  She’d crawled out of the den she’d found to answer some of the baser calls to life…but her intention was lost as she became aware of herself.  The creaks of the dead oaks and elms were like accusations.  Her thoughts turned to her past and the decisions she’d made.  The long and twisted road that had led her to this accursed place.  How misguided she had been!  How short-sighted!  She should’ve known the true cost of her actions.  It wasn’t wealth, or comfort, or even honor that had been at stake…

What tethers did she have now, without her family?

Nyx sucked in breath, aware that she’d stopped breathing.  She registered the burn in her lungs and the ache along her throat, as though she’d been running for ages.  It certainly seemed that way.

The girl, feeling the bite of the earth as she rocked forward onto her knees, slammed the edges of her fists into the soil and screamed with all her might.

The sound echoed from the dark reaches of the forest, over the rippling emerald hills, and across the vast valley until the wind snatched it up in its wispy fingers.

—————————-

Two months ago.  In a small and drafty daikut.

“You’re…different now.”

Nyx froze mid-motion at the unexpected voice, her bag in one hand, her figurine of Aelurus in the other.  The girl turned her head, her heart in her ears.  Winter was coming to a close in sleepy Tosmai.  The night was warming, but it still held a frosty bite.  She risked death from the Cerrite just for returning–but she knew their patrol routes.  Had memorized them prior to her mission in Himitahl.  She was able to infiltrate the highest offices of the nation, she could certainly manage to slip into a few homes to take back the things that had been auctioned away.

She’d first retrieved the list of assets from the local auctioneer–who wasn’t supposed to have taken it from the village center, but the man was well known for bending the rules whenever it suited him.  It was a simple quibble–what could possibly happen to the documents in the hands of someone so meticulous and shrewd?  Well…

Nyx located the winners of the auction without trouble.  She already had the few things she wanted.  Her mother’s gambeson, the amulet of the three suns she bought in Himitahl, her Atalo’s ring.

The last thing was her jade figurine of the Blessed Mother.  The problem…?

Taila had been the auction winner.

“I knew you’d come for it,” her friend said quietly, her voice like an extended hand.  It came from the doorway behind Nyx.  “I would’ve gotten it all…but you always knew what my situation was like with money.”

“I know…” Nyx said as she put the figurine into her bag and let her head fall against her chest.  Her entire body was tensed.

Neither said anything for a moment.

Then she heard Taila sniffle, and when she spoke again, her voice was choked with tears.  “Yeah, I knew you’d come for those gods damned things…you were always…you were always the sort’ve person to risk everything for something so sentimental.  I always said you had fleas in your brain.”

“You did,” the girl affirmed with a nod and a weak smile.

Silence again.

Nyx debated on whether or not she could turn around.  Whether or not she could turn and look her friend in the face.  Her body locked up and she stared at the wall instead.

“I’m sorry, Nyx…this is…it’s hard for me.  You’re my friend, but I can…” Taila broke off as she sucked in air with a shudder.  “…Sweet Aelurus, I can feel the Mark on you!  It makes me nervous!  It’s like everything in me is saying you’re wrong…”

“It’s the magic…” Nyx said.  Her voice was hollow and quiet.  “It tells the spirit in you that I’m…” her voice trailed away.

“The strange thing?  I still can’t–I can’t bring myself to hate you like everyone else does.  I know what they say–but I can’t believe it.  You loved Atalo.  How could you ever…?  And–And it’s not just me, it’s Ampelos too!  He feels the same way!” Taila sucked in air sharply.  “Ah!!  I’m sorry–I didn’t mean to–”

Nyx closed her eyes, tears leaking down her face.  Ampelos had been the one assigned the task of carving the Mark in her.  His hesitance had made the process longer

“It’s true, it’s true!  Ampelos can’t sleep, he didn’t want to do it–” She broke off with a sob.  “Nyx,” and then, suddenly, the steel was back in her voice, “Nyx turn around and fucking look at me–!

Nyx finally turned around.

Taila was standing in the doorway wearing cream white pajamas, her round face already damp and blotchy from her silent weeping.  She didn’t look right.  Her spine was curved, her shoulder-length hair mussed and frizzy, her amethyst eyes red and puffy.  Her hands were tensed like claws at her sides.  Frustration?  Or the Animal in her demanding blood from the spirit traitor?

Hejka et Ool.  Hejka et Juek.  Hejka et Lunés.

Kill the monster.

Nyx took a step toward her friend before she stopped.  She took one slow step back, then another.

In all her life, she had never known Taila to look as she did now.  She had been strong and forceful.  She had been tough and determined.  Now…?  It was because of what Nyx did, it was because of what she was that the older girl was made to seem so torn.  Her blighted hands could not comfort Taila.  She had to leave, before she hurt anyone else.  She had to leave now.

“Taila,” Nyx swallowed through a tight throat. “I have to…go.  Gods, please forgive me…”  She held up her hand, fingers curled lightly, palm facing up as though pleading.  “I can’t do this!  Please forgive me!”

“Nyx–”

Nyx took another step back, toward the window she had come through.  “Take care of yourself.  You won’t…see me again, okay?  I can’t come back.  I won’t.”

“Nyx!”

“I know you loved him!” Nyx blurted out suddenly.  She was trembling.  She stopped, one hand on the windowsill, the other gripping her bag like it was the only thing she had left in the world.  And it was.  “Thaddeus.  I know you loved him.  I know you…you became friends with me so that you could become closer to him.  I appreciate…that even after he died you didn’t leave me alone.  It helped me, knowing I wasn’t completely hated.  But…I don’t want you getting in trouble because of me.  I don’t want you hurting because of me.  So I have to leave now, Taila.  Do you understand?”

Taila stared at Nyx, her brows crashing together.  “That’s what you thought?” she breathed.  “You thought I was only friends with you because…?”

“Goodbye, Taila!” the younger girl turned and jumped through the window in one smooth motion.

She heard her friend hiss from behind her as she sprinted away.  “Nyx…Nyx, stop!

Since they had become friends, Nyx had always listened to Taila.  She listened to her because the girl was charismatic and kind. While the older girl could be pushy, she never asked Nyx to do something she wouldn’t do herself, even if it took a bit of encouragement.  As the years went by, it had gotten to the point that the younger girl wondered if there was ever anything she really wouldn’t do for her friend…

Except now.

Nyx of the night was lost in the shadows, and Taila stared forlornly into the hungry darkness that stole her friend to a future uncertain.

—————————-

She lay on the stone, on her side, dust tickling her nasal passages until mucus filled these and she was forced to breathe through her mouth.  She was naked, her belongings tossed somewhere nearby.  There was something evil in offering any sort of special care to folding her clothing, to protecting her trinkets.  Broken, worn out things like so much that had come to her hands.  She was feverish, and the boots and pants felt stifling.  Her undershirt and gambeson were equally offensive, as they irritated the raw Mark on her back.

It had been months since she’d received it, but the arcane brand had only stopped bleeding some two weeks ago.  The brand itself was like a continuous attack on the skin.  The natural regenerative ability all therians possessed made any permanent change to the body very difficult.  Because of this, soldiers had to train ceaselessly in order to increase their base strength.  As the Mark was essentially damage to the tissue, the magic lingered for atleast half a year to ingrain itself into the therian’s body.  The regenerative magic would take it as the new norm, and once a body was deformed, it was impossible to turn back.

Nyx was at the final stages.

The constant pain made her ill and weak.  Her first full-moon after receiving the Mark had been…traumatic.  Neither she nor the Beast within her could walk after the transformation, and it was all the teenager could do but drag herself somewhere safe.  Out of mourning, the girl had fasted the first month…but then a deepening depression made eating seem a disgusting prospect altogether.  It was perhaps only because of her animal counterpart that she was still alive.  The creature, since their first full moon, seemed overtaken by some mindless drive to keep going. It was a long slow decline that took her to the brink each month. Sometimes, she thought the animal cursed her from the shadows, but she wasn’t sure. She heard lots of things whilst in the grips of fever and hunger.

Like small claws scuttling over rock.

Nyx’s eyes rolled to see a lizard the size of her hand peer at her from a few feet away.  Dead in thought and will, the girl chose to focus on the sight of the small creature, as it was so apart from all that she felt.  She watched as it crept forward, inch by inch, black tongue flickering.  It had blotched skin that alternated between black, brown, and orange.  The soft flesh of its eye was a crimson red, but the pupil itself was a golden yellow.  It tweaked its head to the side as it took in Nyx’s face.

The girl stared at it for a moment longer before her eyes slipped shut.  She fell asleep.

When she awoke hours later, she was aware that the lizard had scuttled even nearer, pressing against her side. She hadn’t moved at all in her sleep, it seemed. Still, she thought the reptile rather bold. It rested beneath her rib cage, its scales cold against her bare skin.  The creature was using her to harvest warmth.

Her body hurt from the lack of movement.  Her tongue was parched and her stomach eating away at her.

Nyx’s hand twitched once against the rock, but this was her only reaction before she fell asleep again. Fell asleep or lost consciousness–it was hard telling the difference anymore.

—————————-

Two months ago.

The girl fought her way up a hill, the village of Tosmai a lonely burn on the horizon.  Her hands snatched at tufts of grass as she crested the steep incline to appreciate her view.  It was early morning.  She wanted to be somewhere safe, and daylight was anything but.  The area surrounding the village was still crawling with Ailurans.

Where could she go?  If she went too far North, she’d arrive at the halfling settlements, and they’d chase her away surely.  The halflings couldn’t sense the Mark, but the full-blooded elves that lived there could.  They were beings of spirit as much as therians were and while the effect wasn’t quite the same, they still knew better than to let an outcast into their midst.  Farther North it was too cold–the land an ever-wintery place where dwarves toiled deep in the mountains.  If she could even survive the treacherous land, who was to say that the dwarves wouldn’t attack her on sight–never mind that she had the Mark?  They weren’t reputed to be very friendly.

South was clearly not an option.  The Ailuran Nation controlled half the heartlands, and Fiamma the other half.  Between the two nations stretched acres of battlefields.  If the Ailurans didn’t kill her, the Fiammans would.

East?  …It was possible, but the way was treacherous on her own, and she’d heard of severe prejudice on the East coast.  Ailurans were hated even more than Draconians or the lowest human criminal.  It was also a land ruled by money–of which she had none, and she doubted she could earn any through legitimate means.  She wasn’t keen on starting a life of crime.

…There was no place for her but the Kreut Forest.  Ailurans and travelers with sense avoided it like the plague.  It was said to be haunted by lost souls, and even guarded by angry nymph spirits who attacked any bearing signs of civilization on their person.  The forest had been covered in soot which had drifted down from the mountains where the dwarves had once worked.  The trees there were dead or twisted.  Ailuran priests worked to restore the land, but they only ventured as far as the outskirts.  It was a black place for wild spirits and dead souls, and even their holy work was overwhelmed by the forest’s suffering.

She’d feel right at home there, she was certain.

—————————-

The girl started awake, screaming.  The lizard sprinted away, hissing as it vanished into the shadows of the den.  Outside, the suns heralded the coming of Night by the sensuous glow that streaked her limited view of the sky. Her vision was blurred and the girl’s cries died out to feeble whimpers in her throat. She winced and shifted to her other side, limbs barely able to keep her upright.

“How much longer will I do this?” she wondered–her first coherent thought in…she couldn’t even remember when. “I don’t want this anymore.”

Words came trickling back to her slowly as she attributed phrases to her feelings. It was like sweeping cobwebs out of corners–

…I failed.  I failed…

…I don’t deserve to exist…

…I’m dying slowly...

Fragmented thoughts for a fragmented monster.  She chuckled emptily into the dark.  Then the quiet came again and the girl stared at the wall.

Nyx let the tears slip down her face. “What’s the point of this? Who am I doing this for? My family or myself?”  She tried to run a hand through her hair, but the long tangled mane caught on her fingers. “A-ma, Thad, Atalo…They’re in the Lunamare.  Their spirits will go on.  Meanwhile…I’m just living in vain, aren’t I?” Her hands curled to fists. The words echoed painfully in her heart.  “I’m living in vain, I’m living in vain, I’m living in vain…”

A new thought hit her, and her eyes shocked wide, more tears spilling forth.  “Is it a sin? …To want to stop the pain? Aelurus, do you hate me that much–or am I bowing to the judgment of mortals? Is this…is this the real sin?  To puppet myself at the satisfaction of society whilst you would have me wiped from life completely?”

The yellow eyes of the lizard glinted at her from the dark.

—————————-

She sometimes had hallucinations.  Sometimes she smelled fire.  Sometimes she thought she were caught in a torrential rain when she was deep within the den.  Sometimes she saw people in the rocks and the dirt and the dead bark.  Sometimes she heard voices cursing her.  The latter could’ve been real–she was in the Kreut Forest after all.

The nymphs didn’t help.  She couldn’t venture far from the den without them throwing sticks and rocks at her.  The shriveled little creatures, with their black eyes, pale skin, and thinning gray hair would leer at her as they ate the skin that peeled from each other’s backs.  They had taken a special interest in this outsider, this Ailuran outcast who had made their hell her home.  She wondered if they were trying to kill her.  The thought didn’t frighten her that much.

She had alot of fever dreams.  She dreamed of giant reptiles swallowing her whole; of drowning her family members one by one in a tub of her own blood; of decaying rapidly into a ghoul at the touch of moonlight.  She’d claw at herself in her delerium, and then she’d weep over the healing wounds, repentant.  Self-harm was a sin against Aelurus.

…But was she a true Ailuran anymore?  Was she not condemned beyond help?

The days stretched to weeks, the weeks to months.  She stopped recognizing hallucinations for what they were.  She stopped weeping over her self-inflicted wounds, and instead, started seeing answers

—————————-

It was daylight.  She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she’d crawled out of the den on all fours.  She was naked still, her hair a tangled mess, her eyes bloodshot and her skin the palest it had ever been.  She’d only had the presence of mind to grab her cotton bandages as they fit into the goal in her mind.

She moved with little thought to consequence.

Her bandages were around her neck and a high oak branch kept her body upright.  The branch was gray and dead, and it squeaked as her weight pulled it down.

Coldness swept over her.

Her vision started to blur.  She wasn’t sure if she was hallucinating, but the girl thought she saw something move down the trunk and peer at her.  It was gray and small, like a domestic cat, but had hands and feet.  A forest nymph.  It scuttled on the bark with all four limbs, and its large black eyes turned her way.  Then it shot up the tree and settled on the branch where her bandages were.  The thing smiled at her, rows of razor sharp teeth where moss and splinters of wood were caught between.  It giggled as it pulled at the bandage, increasing the pressure, and the girl let out a dry sound.  Her eyes rolled and she could see nothing for a moment.

There was a hiss, and without warning, the pull at the bandage was gone.  Nyx’s eyes fluttered open, vision rippling and blurred to the point that all she saw were smudges.  She saw enough however to see that the forest nymph was gone.

Yellow eyes flickered her way.

A voice entered her ears.  It sounded far away.

“Nyx?  …Öctér!”

The girl let out one final gasp before her eyes went black and she was lost to unconsciousness.

—————————-

She started coughing.  Her entire body seized up and her throat felt like it were being torn apart.  Her lungs felt starved.  Someone reared back, their breath a rush over her.  She thought of her mother’s feline face peering at her in the moonlight, greeting her with silent love.

The world tumbled as she felt hands on her.

“Hey, kitten!  Hey!

“Thad…?” she rasped, eyes opening blearily as she saw a shadow over her.

“Nyx?  Gods, ya lil’ idiot, what were you thinkin’!?”

“I…” she frowned, a hand going to her throat.  She started coughing again and didn’t stop for a while.  Her body started to feel tired from the effort.  Nyx felt something cold and wet fall onto her skin.  Like a rain drop.

The girl opened her eyes against the sunlight, and was visited by a surprising sight.

Marq, the merchant elf, was staring at her with eyes wide.  She hadn’t seen him in over a year.  Since her childhood, the man had aged, gaining wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.  His hair seemed paler too, and his face looked gaunter.  He no longer wore his poncho.  Instead he seemed to be using a long and dusty leather jacket, cracked and faded at the seams.  This he used to cover her naked body.  One more tear fell from his gray eyes before he wiped at them both quickly.  “Gods!” he said shakily, patting her on the cheek.  “You scared me good!

Nyx blinked at him.  “…Why are you here?” she asked.  Her voice was rough from lack of use.

The elf glared at her.  “Why’m I here!?  A fine question, kitten, considering I just saved yer life!  I was jes’ passin’ through when I saw you strung up like a fresh kill!”

The girl swallowed, staring at him.  “Let me go.” she said, pushing at him gently.

“Hey, hold on, now–”

“Lemme go, Marq!”  Her struggle turned fierce.

The man gasped as Nyx tumbled out of his arms.  She hit the ground and tried to raise herself, but found her vision ripple away from her in a surge of grey and white.  Her head felt light.  Deep within her, the Beast snarled.  It couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of suicide, such things didn’t exist in Her wild world, but she understood enough to know that they’d nearly died.

“I didn’t want to be cut down…” Nyx spat.  The Beast’s anger was fueling her.  She turned her head to glare at the man.  “And for your information you didn’t fucking save me.  Didn’t you see the Mark on me?  Üle cajeck!”  Nyx’s face crumpled and she hid behind her curtain of long hair, her head swinging down so that her forehead hovered near the ground. “Üle cajeck!She screamed with a hoarse voice.

She felt ashamed…and angry.  She hadn’t wanted anyone to see her that way.  She’d just wanted the pain to stop.  But faced with the eyes of another, even an outsider, the girl couldn’t lie to herself about what she’d just try to do.

Another sin, another crime–she was a despicable creature.

“No one can save me!” She screamed through her tears.  She slammed a fist onto the ground as her bones and muscles started to ache.  “No one!”

She felt a hand on her back and flinched away, her head snapping up to fix the merchant with a bestial hiss and a wild glare.

Marq pulled away quickly, his face drawn long in something akin to horror.  Then he settled back and pulled at his earlobe.  “I knew you were Marked before I even saw yer back.” The man’s voice became thick as he struggled through his next words.  His northwestern accent became even more pronounced. “But…I know ya, kitten!  I known ya for years.  An’…An’ tha’s enough fer me…alrigh’?  I couldn’ jes’ leave ya…”

Nyx couldn’t answer.  She turned her face away and focused on wrestling back her animal counterpart.  The creature fought her, causing sharp twinges of pain down her spine and limbs, but in the end she was victorious.  The Beast fell silent.  Nyx’s tears ebbed away, but a heaviness came over her.  She lay herself down and didn’t move.  Couldn’t.  The shock of what she’d nearly done, coupled with her shame and her effort to control her Animal’s reaction was too much.  She stared at the dirt ground, her thoughts turning disjointed as the gravity of the situation pressed on her in full.

They seemed to stay there a long time.

Then she heard Marq gather up her things from the den.  When he came and picked her up with his long arms, the girl still did not move or speak.  The sky passed overhead as her arm dangled free through the air.  After a time, her eyes fell shut.

—————————-

She smelled meat.

The Beast in her snarled, its paws heavy on her mind as it started to pace.

Food–!

Nyx opened her eyes, her body laid out on a soft bed roll and a fire painting her sleepy thoughts a hot burn.  The forest canopy was a warm halo that framed the starry sky.  By the healthy branches and green leaves, she knew immediately that they were no longer in the Kreut Forest.

She felt weak, she felt tired, she felt nauseous.

She decided she was feeling too much.

Marq had dressed her, so she now wore her pants and her mother’s gambeson.  The cloth stuck to her Mark, where the puss had dried to the clothing.  With both arms, the girl covered her head and curled up into a ball, her body protesting even this slight movement as she tried to hide herself from the world that had so craftily drawn her from the place of dark ether.

“Aaah…yer awake!”  Marq’s voice.  His boots crunched on the forest floor as he came near.  She heard him kneel and was aware of his nearness by the scent that tickled her nose–old leather and sweat, with…apple cider?  A hand on her shoulder shook her gently.

“C’mon, kitten…aren’ ya hungry?  I fried some bacon.”

Nyx shifted her arms just enough to allow one eye to glare squintily up at the elf.  The man shrugged and stood.

“Suit yer’self!” he said.

He went to the otherside of the small campfire where he carefully removed his frying pan with a thick cloth.  From his bag, he took out a tin plate and a fork and started to serve himself some of the bacon.  Nyx couldn’t help it.  She sat up, despite the waves of pain that churned her head, and gazed hungrily at the food.

Marq glanced at her with a smirk.  He held up the plate.  “You wan’ a bread roll too?”

Nyx turned her eyes downward and fiddled with the neck of her gambeson.  She nodded once.

Within the next few moments, she was sitting up and shoveling her food into her mouth with little pause.

Marq watched her in amazement.  “Wow, kitten.  Do you have’ta practice so that ya don’ choke when eatin’ that fast, or what?”

Nyx didn’t answer.  She finished her plate, licking up the grease and crumbs.

The elf chuckled.  “Yeah, y’know, when yer plate’s empty, that usually means ya gotta get more.”

The girl looked at him, her face burning.  “Can…can I have more?” she asked tentatively.

Marq nodded, taking her plate and going back to his frying pan.  “Sure ya can.  I already ate anyhow.”  He paused however as he returned to her.  The girl stared at the plate in anticipation.  “Hey…but we gotta talk.”

Nyx’s eyes snapped up to his face.  She looked away.  “I don’t want to,” she muttered.  Her face sagged and she felt her eyes start to burn.  “I just wish…you hadn’t seen me like that.”

“I’m glad I managed to find you,” Marq said without hesitation.

“What…?” the girl asked, thinking she’d heard wrong.

The elf shrugged and handed her the plate.  Nyx took it in her hands slowly.  “If I hadn’a gone by, I wouldn’ have been able to stop ya.”

Nyx blushed.  She held the plate close to her as her body curled, but she stared at the food like it were a plate of maggots.  Suddenly, she wasn’t hungry anymore.

“Hey,” Marq said, patting her on the arm as he sat near her.  “I’m not gonna make ya talk about how ya got to where ya did if you don’ wanna.  I jes’ wanna know what yer gonna do now?”

“Try again?” Nyx said with a weak chuckle.  But it didn’t sound right even to her, and she regretted it.

Marq didn’t laugh.  “Be serious, kitten.”

“Then take me serious, Marq!” The girl snapped.  She found it easy to make her shame and discomfort into anger.  “Stop calling me kitten!  I’m not a child anymore!”  She blinked down at the plate.  “I’m not…I…”

The elf frowned at her.  “What?”

Nyx’s face was green when she looked at him.  “I think I’m going to be sick!

When she was through tossing up the food she’d just ate, the girl tried to rise up and leave.  “M’sorry about the food, m’sorry.  I wasted it.  I shouldn’t…you shouldn’t…it’s…the food’s wasted on me.” Her head felt like it were filled with water, and her vision rippled.  The air felt cold against her skin.

“C’mon now, you know I can’ jes let ya go like that!”  Marq steered her back to camp and the youth found she could hardly resist.  That didn’t mean she didn’t try.

“No,” she ground out, fingers digging feebly into his arms.  She tried to kick him away, but the man seemed unfazed.  “Leggo!”

Her weakness was such that even as she put in all she could, Marq was still able to overpower her.  He swept her up and sat down onto the ground with a ‘fwop’.  His large hands tightened around her wrists and she couldn’t get free.  He pressed her legs between his arm and his thigh and she couldn’t kick.  The man was not a warrior, he was just an elf merchant.  It wasn’t supposed to be that easy.  It was pathetic and they were both aware of it.

Marq gazed at her with pity as he sat at the campfire, Nyx in his arms, snarling and writhing.

“Leggo! …Lemme go!”  She hiccuped, her eyes burning.  “Marq!  Please! I’m sorry about the food!  I’m sorry!

“Nyx,” the man said, his gray eyes watering.  “I don’ care about that.  Ya need help.”  His lips pressed together as his chin crumpled.  “Yer worse than I thought ya were.  Yer stomach can’t hold the food, and you can’t even…” his voice trailed away.

Nyx grew tired.  She let her head fall back against the elf’s arm, his scent filling her as she saw the heavens through her tears.  She swallowed and begged one more time.

“Please let me go.  Please let me disappear…

—————————-

The days went by.  Nyx tried to leave, and every time, Marq stopped her–even going so far as to sit on her once.

“Shiva’s breath!  Who would ever have come to think that chaining a person to a rock would be seen as an act of mercy!?” The man panted, trying to avoid Nyx’s flailing limbs.

The man tempted her with small cups of soup, and the girl refused at first, afraid she’d throw it up like before.  Then one day, when the pain was great and her fevers back to their peak, the girl took the soup with little thought.  Later, Marq would tell her he saw the Beast in her eyes, intent on survival.  “Some part of ya wants ta keep goin’.  Right now, that aspect of you is my ally.”

“Be careful what you wish for…” the girl muttered darkly.

“It isn’t like ya ta threaten a person, Nyx,” the man said with a critical frown.

The youth turned her face away.  “I’m not threatening you.  I’m trying to spare you.”

More days passed, and the girl’s portions increased.  She was still reluctant, but she was cooperating, much to Marq’s delight.  He gave her drops of a tonic every night, “To give back what ya been missin’,” he said.

Nyx started to feel stronger.  It felt…good.  But she felt guilty.  She wasn’t supposed to feel this way.  She was supposed to rot away, forgotten by the world.

“You shouldn’t be doing this,” she told the elf one day.

The man just snorted.  “Oh, an’ I’m supposed ta lose my most valued customer?”

Despite herself, Nyx grinned.  The expression was short lived and she wiped at her face.  “I’m getting stronger.  And when I’m strong enough, I’m going to leave you.  It’s…for the best.”

“Then what’ll you do, Nyx?” Marq asked quietly.

Nyx sighed, closing her eyes.  That accursed question again.  What did he want from her?

“I don’t know,” she said after a moment.  It was completely sincere.

The elf nodded, a note of satisfaction to his face.  “…Okay,” was all he said.

—————————-

Another day gone.  Night was upon them again.

Marq’s voice was a drone to her.  He’d been going on for the past hour, resigned to the fact that the girl was not going to reciprocate his desire to hold a conversation.  Nyx was more interested in splitting her ends.  The fire light made it hard to see what she was doing though, and she started to feel impatient.

“You have’ta think beyond right and wrongdoing.  You have’ta think how yer goin’ta exist for the tomorrow.  If ya gotta, look at nature around us.  You wanna know the real reason the Kreut Forest has yet ta be restored?  It’s because the nymphs have allowed themselves ta become all mixed up on the idea of morality.”

This made Nyx look up.

Marq was cutting meat from a rabbit he’d killed with his slingshot.  Without his bag and big coat on, he looked slim and lanky.  There were scars all over his arms, and the peak of his chest, just under the collar bone, revealed just a portion of what looked like burn scars.

Aware and enthused by her sudden attention, the man continued, speaking faster, “They don’t think of balance, only justice.  But does their justice come ridin’ on the waves of their anger and loathing?  The trees are black, and it’s their fault.  They suffer continuously.  I think that’s the real reason that place is so dead.  But nature knows death an’ its own form o’ destruction, doesn’it?  Yet it keeps goin’.  A hawk that kills a mouse for food don’t live in sin because it is seekin’ ta survive, and its survival returns to the world around it.  Kitten, ya have’ta think beyond right and wrongdoing.  Take what ya need, but nothing more, and give back to the life that sustains ya.”

Marq tore off a piece of raw meat and threw it onto the ground.  Nyx gasped as, from the shadows, the lizard scuttled forth, tongue flickering, its eyes on her and the elf.  Then with a mad dash it went to the meat, gobbled it up, then darted back out of sight.  The girl blinked in amazement, her eyes turning to Marq.  The man just smiled.  The fire danced in his eyes.

“That lil’ guy’s been followin’ ya for a while now!”

Nyx turned and gazed at the last place she’d seen the creature.  “It isn’t malefic?”

“…Uh, what?”

“Bad?  It isn’t bad?”

Marq laughed.  “Öctér! No, no, that’s good.”

“I can’t see how that’s a good thing.”  Nyx sighed and leaned on her knees.

The elf’s expression turned somber.  When he spoke, his voice was soft,  “If yer existence truly upsets the balance of life, then nature itself will destroy you and return ya to the basest aspects.  For now, ya gotta keep goin’.  I can’t speak for the gods, but the gods can certainly speak for themselves.  Our world is their instrument.  Death beyond our efforts is divinity, I think.”

“Was it divine then, that my entire family died?” Nyx bit out, her face turning red.

Marq held a sad smile instead of the look of shock or embarrassment she expected.  He gazed down at the ground, “Yes.”

“Fuck you,” the girl snarled, rising.  He rose with her, his face tightening.  He’d stop her if she tried to leave, just like all the other times.  Was this his idea of compassion?  Keeping her like a prisoner?  She was a little stronger now…could she take him?  “Am I fulfilling some sort of dream for you?  Easing some sort of guilt?  I’m sorry to ruin your fallacious fantasy, but I’m Marked, and I will be until the day I die.  One day I’ll leave–”

“To what!? Kreut Forest?  That graveyard?” The elf snapped, throwing his cooking knife to the ground.  “Destiny will find ya, whether you want it to or not, Nyx.  You think that jes’ driftin’ through the days like ya been is any better than tryin’ta kill yourself?  Do that and yer no different from those damned nymphs, sittin’ black an’ ugly in their dead trees–”

“And what about you!?” the girl returned shrilly.  “With your past of debts and crimes and poor choices?  Are you moving on?  Are you meeting your destiny?  You still live like a vagabond–no home and no one to answer to!  I know my place, Marq.  What about you?”

Marq turned his head, his eyes narrowed at the floor.

Nyx snorted and lay on the ground, her back to the man, ignoring the bedroll he’d laid out just for her.  It was petulant, but she didn’t want anything that came from him.

“Yeah…?” he said after a while.  She heard him spit.  “Well…maybe I’ll get it right someday.  The difference ‘tween you an’ me kitten is that I can still believe in tomorrow’s salvation…what kills me is that yer right there next to me, but yer jes’ facin’ the wrong way…lookin’ backwards…Ya have’ta…shed all that.”

There was a hiss as the man poured water over the fire.  He’d given up on dinner, it seemed.  “You have’ta shed yer past to see yer future.”

—————————-

The following day, they didn’t speak.  Nyx was already working out how to flee from the man.  It had been almost two weeks already.  She was done playing along.  She decided she’d try to slip away from him in the night, when he’d fallen asleep.  First, she wanted to catch some rest for what was certain to be a taxing ordeal.  After dinner, she laid down, and this was faced with no complaint from Marq who knew how easily her feeble body left her exhausted at the end of the day.

But that evening, to her bewilderment, Marq roused her from sleep.  It was dusk, and Marq’s face was drawn and pale.  The fire had recently been put out, sand kicked over it instead of the usual water.  His things were gathered up.

“Nyx, we have to go!” he hissed.

The girl blinked at him, irritated and confused.  “Wha–?”

“We have to go, we have to go!!” He snapped, dragging her to her feet and pulling the bed roll out from under her before she was completely steady.

Nyx, dizzy with drowsiness, let out a cry as the elf threw her bag of belongings at her.  She caught it to her chest, and her eyes blinked open wide and glassy.  “What’s the matter with you!?”

Marq opened his mouth to speak.  Then there was a sound that echoed throughout the forest.  It blared, warm and sharp–a hunter’s horn.  Birds startled from the trees as in the next instant, they heard barking.

The elf shoved the girl forward, his teeth bared.  “C’mon, we gotta run!”

Nyx didn’t need telling twice.  She turned and broke into a sprint, her limbs feeling shocked and electric as her heart went into overdrive.  She was still weak, and so she grew tired quickly, but Marq kept pulling and pushing her.  “C’mon, c’mon!

They were clumsy in their effort to escape.  They broke branches and burst through huckleberry bushes.  The forest floor was a treacherous way that shocked their soles.  Nyx knew better.  This wasn’t the way to lose their pursuers.

She tried to grab at Marq’s sleeve.  “Marq!” she panted.  She missed at first, the man apparently too intent on just putting distance between himself and the animals behind him.  Her second try however, she managed to grab him by the crook of the arm.  “Damn it, stop!

The elf did so, but only after stumbling forward a few more steps.  He danced on the spot, his bag jingling as he tried to peer through the trees.  “Nyx, they’re comin’!

“I know that, but the way we’re tumbling through, we may as well be spilling paint behind us!”  She doubled over as she pointed up a maple tree.  “We need to climb this tree!”

The elf gave her a dry look.  “Look, I know you Ailurans are cats an’ all–”

“Just do as I tell you!”  The girl turned and clawed up the tree, pulling herself up on the lowest branch.  The man snorted but followed suit.

Soon they were both nestled in the reaches of the maple tree.  Nyx pressed a finger to her lips as the dogs barking grew closer.  She judged their distance to be some half mile.  The thick forest, coupled with the dogs need to stop and rediscover their scent had given them time.  But that time was drawing to a close.  The girl froze, feeling the wind through the branches.  It was coming…from the South.

Nyx gestured for Marq to follow her.  An oak tree with long thick branches was at war with the maple for sunlight.  The oak’s branches were near enough that Nyx could lean over and crawl into its reach.  The branches squeaked and dipped frighteningly for a moment, but the girl cleared to the other side.  She didn’t pause to wait for Marq.  She moved quickly, slipping and stumbling only a few times as she crossed to the otherside of the tree.  From there, she crossed onto another oak.  She managed this one more time, making it to an elm tree.  She’d crossed twenty-five meters from where they’d started.  Marq was still on the oak behind her.  Unfortunately, the dogs caught up.

Her keen eyesight in the growing darkness granted her basic details.  The dogs were three large shepherds, with black faces, creamy bellies, and large ears.  Nyx held out a staying hand, her face paling.  Marq looked at her, trembling.  The girl shook her head and mouthed, “Don’t move!”  She wasn’t sure if the man could see her, but she didn’t dare do more.

The dogs paused, noses to the ground.  One growled and pawed up the oak tree, its nose quivering.  It whined, then barked.  The others did the same.  They spread out, sniffing the air.  Nyx held her breath.  Hopefully, they’d moved downwind enough that the dogs wouldn’t catch their scent.

To their fortune, the shepherds didn’t venture far from their last known scent trail.  Voices neared.

“Aw great…they lost ‘im again.”

“They didn’t lose him last time.  You just became frightened.

“Can ya blame me?  That damn Kreut gives me the creeps!”

“You have me.  You would’ve been safe.”

“Against them evil spirits?  No offense, but not even Ailuran priests can get in, and they specialize in–”

“Shh…”

Two men, one with a northwestern accent like Marq, the other with an accent she didn’t recognize.  Nyx tried to peer through the trees to get a look at them.  She only managed to see one.  He wore a poncho, like the one Marq used to wear, and he had shoulder-length blond hair.  By the looks of him, he seemed human.  At his far hip, the girl made out a wide sword.  On his nearest hip, she saw the horn he’d been using, made of an animal’s horn.

His partner, still out of view, spoke.  He sounded eerily calm, “He’s here somewhere.  He didn’t vanish.  The tracks stop at this tree.”  She heard the crunch of dirt as whoever it was walked slowly.  She also heard the chink of armor.  The girl’s mouth went dry and she stared at Marq, who was squeezing his eye shut.  Sweat was trailing down his slim face in thick rivulets.

…What had the man gotten himself into now?

As quiet as they could, the both of them huddled down, behind the cover of their respective trees.  More footsteps told them both that the second hunter was traveling ever closer.

“Winnamer.”  The first hunter.  He sounded impatient.  “Hey, it’s gettin’ ta night and I can hardly see.  Les’ jes’ go, huh?  We’ll get ‘im in the mornin’.”  It was true.  Since they’d started running, the stars had come out.

When ‘Winnamer’ spoke, it was with a gentle sigh, like a parent dealing with an impatient child.  “If we give up now, than I doubt we’ll catch them before the end of tomorrow.  Didn’t I already tell you my contract had a time limit?”

“Hey, we’ll get ‘im!  And you’ll get the other half of the gold once that happens!”

“And if not, then I keep the first half and continue on my way.  I have bigger things to deal with.”

“What’re you in such a hurry for?”

“This is where I ignore you and instead choose to answer your former, more reasonable request.”  Footsteps again.  Faster.  Heading away.  “I’m done for the day.”

Nyx’s fingers dug into the bark as she saw the man known as Winnamer walk into her view.  It was only for a brief second.  He had long black hair down to his waist and slate blue scale armor.  On his back was a heavy billhook, and on his hip a wicked black hook.

The first hunter cursed.  His face scrunched in frustration as he watched the other man walk away.  Then he turned his head and whistled for the dogs to follow, and they did so eagerly–already bored without a proper trail to follow.  They waited until the men and dogs were gone.  Then they waited some more.

—————————-

“Marq–”

“Nyx, look–”

“Gods damn it!”

“Nyx,” the elf rubbed his brow as he leaned back against the oak tree he’d just climbed down.  The darkness was heavy around them.  “Look, I didn’ think they’d follow me after the Kreut Forest, alright?”

“And you just forgot to mention that you were in trouble again?”

“I was a bit preoccupied, y’know?” the man snapped, gesturing at her.  “And don’ go judgin’ me kid, considerin you–” the man stopped with a hiss.

Nyx took a step from him, unable to keep the hurt from her face.  “Yeah…” she laughed but it was a humorless sound.  “I should know better.  I’m sorry.”

“Aw hell, Nyx m’sorry!  I just…Shiva’s breath!” the man kicked at the ground.

The girl had already turned and was walking away.  “Goodbye, Marq.”

—————————-

She didn’t welcome the solitude, but rather, accepted it.  It was where she was supposed to be.  The wind in her hair, the night on her back, the uncertainty of her path–it was all familiar.  Loathed, but it was familiar.

Nyx wiped away silent tears.

The next few days were spent trying to get a grasp of her new surroundings.  She was in unfamiliar territory, and it set her on edge.  She wanted to head westward again, but she didn’t want to run into the hunters.  Frustrated, she tried to find somewhere safe where she could hide until the trouble passed and she could…

But the girl paused, coming to a slow stop in the forest.  Around her, the forest was dim and sleepy–but light was beginning to filter down through the thick forest canopy.  She realized…she didn’t want to go back to the Kreut Forest.  She didn’t want to wander through the dead, black trees.  She didn’t want to be like the disgusting nymphs that crawled over the dry bark.

Nyx bowed her head, her body trembling.  “What’m I supposed to do now…?”

Then she heard the hunter’s horn, and her head snapped up.

She ran.

Nyx’s breaths were knives, and every long draw cut at her.  She blinked away sweat, beads collecting on her brow and nose, and droplets swooped over the hollow of her cheeks, which were sunken from her starvation.  Nyx clenched and unclenched her hands.  She heard the dogs and sobbed.  She was alone now.  Alone and tired, because she hadn’t slept.  The girl slowed to a jog, her eyes scanning for a good tree to climb.

She found one.

But the dogs found her.

One of the shepherds slammed into her from the side, knocking her to the ground in a flash of fur and fangs.  The animal clamped its mouth around her right forearm and worried it, spit making her gambeson sleeve wet as ropes of saliva fell from the creature’s mouth and landed on her face in light of the ferocious movement.  The other two dogs soon joined it, snarling and growling.  One took her by the ankle, the other her left wrist.  Nyx screamed and tried to defend herself, but the dogs were fierce.

“Release!” a familiar voice shouted.  The man from before.

As soon as the dogs let her go, the girl curled into a ball, sobbing so hard she could hardly breathe.

“There’s the other one!”  the man said, “You think you can use her?”

“We can’t use her.”  Winnamer.  She heard his armor chink as he came closer.  He drew a blade and she curled into an even tighter ball.

“Why not?  What’s wrong?”

“You don’t know.  You can’t feel it.”  Nyx felt a blade brush back her hair and she trembled.

There was a whistle as Winnamer drew back his weapon.  “This is a Marked Ailuran.  She’s too dangerous.  But her head will earn me prestige with my temple–”

Leave ‘er alone!”  Marq’s voice.

Nyx peeked from beneath her arms, her breathing fast and shallow.  Winnamer was wielding his billhook.  The human hunter had his sword drawn.  Both men turned, looks of puzzlement passing their faces as behind them, the elf merchant appeared.  He was without his pack and lacking his usual jacket.  The hunter turned and pointed his sword.

“Finally!” he crowed.  “The slimy bastard shows his rotten face!”

Marq was sweating profusely, and his skin was flushed.  He gazed at Nyx with knitted brows.  Then he turned to the hunter.  “Let the girl go, Oriel.  She has nothing to do with this.  I’ll…I’ll go with ya.”

“And my gold?”

The elf’s face turned hard.  “Ya know I don’t have it…”

Oriel clicked his tongue, brushing back his blond with an exaggerated swish of his hand.  He pointed at the ground with his sword.  “Down on your knees and hands behind your head.  Then I’ll let the Ailuran go.”

Marq pressed his lips together so that they turned white.  His cleft chin quivered, but he did as he was ordered to.  Nyx raised herself slowly.  The dogs growled as she moved, their muscles taut as they awaited any reason to attack her.  Her eyes flickered to Winnamer, who was gazing at her with cold black eyes.  His long black hair lifted with the breeze, and the girl saw that the strands were braided at the top.  There was a black mark tattooed on his neck, just over the jugular, showing a box-shaped design with a slash through the middle and horns at the sides.  Nyx felt sick.  She knew what that symbol meant.

Winnamer was a paladin, and part of a controversial order that specialized in very ‘offensive‘ magic.  The Order of Khnum.  They weren’t known for their mercy, and other temples accused them of committing evil in the pursuit of good.  They’re motto may as well have been “the ends justify the means”.  They were famous for the spell said to “return souls” unto the very world they took from, leaving the animus to unravel with every exhaled breath of the subject, turning them into clay statues.  She’d read about it a long time ago, and the information came rushing back without trouble.

As if to confirm her fears, Winnamer turned his head and said to Oriel, “Comrade.  You have promised to let this girl go.  I’d not make a liar of you.  But for the second half of my payment, I’d deny your gold and ask that you lend me your dogs today instead.”

Oriel was busy tying Marq up from behind.  The elf started to thrash at Winnamer’s words, but by this time he was securely bound.

“Hey!  I said let her go!” he shouted.  The hunter bashed him in the back of the head with the hilt of his sword, and Marq fell over, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

Winnamer didn’t look at him.  “Oriel, the girl can go.  I’m asking for your dogs.  Atleast until tonight.”

“Shit, fine.  Take ’em.  You want me to tell ya how to–?”

“No need.”  Winnamer turned his head forward again.  Nyx scuttled backwards, her lips trembling.  The paladin pointed at her with his billhook.  His eyes started to glow and when he spoke again, it was…ethereal…layered as though there were more than one person speaking.  “Ailuran.  You will run now.  If I catch you, you will die.  If you refuse to go, I shall take it as your waiving your chance to freedom and have my prize now.

The dogs snarled, snapping their jaws.  They jockeyed one another, bumping shoulders and shifting position along an invisible line.  Their eyes started to glow, as Winnamer’s did.

Nyx stared wildly at them, then at the paladin, then at Marq–who lay face down on the forest floor.  She should save him, she shouldn’t leave him behind–

In her head, the Animal was yowling.

Run Run Run Run Run Run

The driving fear overtook her and the girl turned and ran, her body like a scythe that cut through the unknown forest.  She ran less than half a mile before her vision rippled the world away, and exhaustion made it so that even breathing took great effort.  The girl tripped and crashed onto the roots of an ancient bay fig.  Her eyes rolled and her gasps for breath were long and desperate.  Her hands crushed leaves and dirt in her hands as she tried to claw her way along the ground.

The tree groaned over her, as though protesting her clawing hands against its bark.  It stood nearly two hundred feet tall, and its trunk was as wide as five people.  The roots, where it had wrapped around and overwhelmed its host (a now dead elm tree) started around Nyx’s height, then buried into the ground.  Between some of the roots, there were small spaces where animals had taken shelter.  As she could barely raise herself up onto all fours let alone stand, the girl crawled up the tree and into one of these nooks.  She just managed to fit, but the space felt claustrophobic.

She waited there a few minutes longer, her eyes slipping shut against her will.  She was so tired…

The roots shuttered, and a loud growl rattled her as hot stinking breath rushed past her face.

Nyx screamed, jerking awake, her head snapping back against the tree.

All she could see in her daze and incoherent fear were glowing eyes amidst black faces and snapping jaws.  They had caught up with her–and this time they didn’t bark or howl to announce their presence.  They were driven by something else–some magic force that Nyx couldn’t understand in her terror.  The dogs couldn’t get in all the way, but they were still far too close for comfort.  The girl shifted, trying to scuttle to a place where they couldn’t get to, but even as she tried to move beneath the weave of thick tree roots, the dogs followed.

They stayed like that for ages it seemed.

The girl covered her eyes and curled into a fetal position, the hellish barking making her flinch every time.

If this is what you want, then why do you cower?

The voice seemed to come from nowhere, much like the loud screech that filled the air, effectively silencing the dogs.  There were yelps and whines as the dogs battled whatever it was that had appeared.  Nyx wasn’t sure if she should lift her eyes.  She wasn’t sure if she wanted to.

The world fell quiet.

She remained there a long time, unmoving.  Night came.

Finally, Nyx raised her head, her bloodshot eyes blinking.

The dogs were gone, and Winnamer was nowhere in sight.

—————————-

She started to walk, not really certain of where she was going.  Her feet hurt, and her stomach snarled at her from under her gambeson.

She heard someone sigh and raised her eyes from the floor.  She was back to the place she had fled from before.  The sight that met her didn’t surprise her, but her throat tightened and she fell to her knees.

Marq was tied to a tree, half naked, his body covered in blood.  His ears had been cut off, and his face was bruised.  His left shoulder seemed at a funny angle, and there were cuts all along his chest.  Now that he was bare chested, Nyx could see the burn marks he had in full.  From his collar bone a large twisted burn spanned down to his belly button.

Unable to take the sight anymore, the girl bowed her head.  “Marq…” she sobbed.

“Hmm?” The girl gasped and stared at the man as his swollen eyes open to slits.  “Ah…kitten.  There ya are…” the man mumbled, his swollen lips barely moving.

She scooted closer.  “I…I don’t know what to–” she glanced over her shoulder as a thought suddenly hit her.  She started to shiver and her tawny eyes went wide.  “Wait, are they still here? Those men!?”  Then she felt guilty as it occurred to her how selfish this was, and she looked back at the elf, pulling at the front of her gambeson.  “I mean…I…do you want me to cut you down?  Can you move?”  Despite her shame, she couldn’t discard the desire to run.  She didn’t want to be there.

“Kitten…” The man exhaled, then his face twitched into what could be called a smile.  “Hey…I’m dyin’, y’know?  Winnamer…cast Argilla on me…ya heard o’ that spell, m’sure.”  he let out another long sigh.  “…Don’ feel bad for wantin’ to run.  Yer right, I’d jes’ hold ya back…”  He coughed and groaned, and the action seemed so painful even Nyx winced.  “I wan’ ya to know…that I really didn’ do anythin’ this time…so please don’ think too badly of me.  Please?  Oriel got greedy…he…he went back on his word…wanted more for the merch I bought from ‘im.  Turns out, he was jes’ another thug.”

“But why!” Nyx sobbed, tugging harder at her gambeson.  “Why did you try to save me?  I’m not worth it!  If you were innocent then you should’ve just let them kill me!”

Marq shook his head softly.  “No, Nyx.  You was right.  I…I was livin’ like a vagabon’, not wantin’ ta answer for my past mistakes.  All those times…I jes’ got lucky.  Scraped by with the skin o’ my teeth.  I never really learned from my mistakes, never really knew what it meant ta wash my soul clean.  I think…I think the gods sent Oriel an’ Winnamer for a reason.  I have ta give back what I took.  Same as you did, when ya got that Mark.”

“You aren’t making any sense!” the girl screamed.  “Üle cajeck! Üle kinzcht nedret!  You gods damned miscreant, I can’t cry for you too!

“So don’, ya lil’ idiot.  Whose askin’ ya to?”  Marq coughed and Nyx let out a startled hiss as she saw his hair turn stiff, then crumble away into the breeze.  His chest started to take on a dull, muddy shade.

“Ah gods…no…no, no, no…”  she stood to her feet.  “Marq you’re turning into clay–”

“Nyx, hey.  Look’it me.”

The girl stared in horror as she saw his chest turn stiff, as parts of his flesh flaked away.

“Nyx!”

She snapped her eyes onto Marq’s gray ones, and she noted something fiery in their stare.

“Go East, kitten,” the man whispered.  The edges of his face started to turn dull.  Spidery cracks appeared along his cheeks and temples.  “Go find those incredible deserts and jungles and cities you been readin’ about.  You have’ta keep goin’.  Think beyond right and wrongdoin’ and jes give back to the life that sustains ya.  It doesn’ look it, but I’m doin’ that now.  I was long overdue, so don’ you mourn me.  Don’ya dare.  This was my choice, my destiny.  But if ya wait as long as I did ta give back to the world, you’ll end up payin’ the same price, one way or another…”

Nyx just shook her head.  “But…” her eyes lowered and she frowned.  With a shaking hand, she reached forward toward Marq’s left breast, where up close now, she saw beneath the crusted blood a faded tattoo.  It was shaped like a lizard.  Her fingertips brushed over it gently.  “Marq…are you the one who…?”

“Marquis.”

“What?”

“My full name,” he wheezed, barely audible.  “Is Marquis.  Take care in who ya trust yerself with, kitten.  Alot can be had…in jus’ta name…”

As soon as she removed her touch, the man seized up with a gasp.  He threw his head back against the tree, and there was a sick cracking noise as his body transformed completely into clay.  His last expression was that of great shock.  Nyx gasped and jumped back, her eyes spilling tears as the man’s body crumbled and fell to pieces.

“Marq!” She screamed, though she backpedaled away.  “Oh gods, why?

“He spoke to the truth.  It was his payment, for his past sins.  He had quite a bit.  Most of which I’m sure you were unaware of.”

The girl jumped and spun around.  Her legs grew weak as she found herself face to face with Winnamer.

The paladin narrowed his eyes at her.  “Something powerful killed Oriel’s dogs.  I felt their deaths in our connection.  They never saw what it was.”  He clenched his fists, his brows clashing together.  “What power did that elf use?  And why would he waste it on you?

Nyx couldn’t answer.  She swallowed through a tight throat and tried to think of how to get away.

Winnamer sighed and looked to the forest canopy.  “Oh, well…I can’t kill you, now.  So it doesn’t matter.”

The girl couldn’t help it.  “What?” she squeaked, twisting the hem of her gambeson.

The paladin raised an eyebrow at her, but didn’t lower his head.  He stared at her down the length of his nose, his hands relaxing at their sides.  “Marquis was a sinner, but he was repentant.  He gave his life for you.  I also learned that Oriel was as much a sinner as Marq had been.  Perhaps worse.  I made him pay.  I cannot be associated with such types.  As such, the manner of our meeting taints the honor I would receive in taking your head to my temple.  So I’m not going to kill you.”

Nyx blinked.  “You’re…letting me go?”

“Not necessarily.”  Winnamer folded his hands behind his back.  “I’ll give you till the rest of this year to leave this region.  If I ever find you again, you can be certain I will not hold back, regardless of how or where we meet.  That I can promise you.”

Nyx started to back away, her eyes on the paladin.  He belonged to a class of magic users who took oaths and promises very seriously, but somehow, she still feared betrayal through some insidious loophole.

“Ailuran,” he said.

The girl paused, tensing.  “…Yes?”

“What is your name?  For posterity’s sake.”

Nyx narrowed her eyes.  “I’d rather not say.  I mean,”  She glanced off to the side, then back at the man.  “Is Winnamer even your real name?”

Winnamer blinked at her, then he chuckled and bowed his head.  “Mmm…fine.  Until next time, little one.”

The girl hissed at him, feeling something of her animal self pushing at her skin.  She turned and ran, and the paladin’s eyes felt like weights on her back.

—————————-

Eight months later.

In a garden shed.

The girl sighed, fussing with her newly cut hair.  The shears she’d used had been too big.  She’d cut off large chunks, leaving the locks uneven.  To make matters worse, a fox in the garden had startled her, making her cut her bangs at a funny angle.  At that point, she’d given up.  Anymore attempts, and she was certain she’d behead herself.  The itch of hair was already driving her mad.

“By the four winds, that had to be one of my stupidest ideas to date,” the girl muttered to herself as she passed the garden and approached the humble thatched house that shadowed it.

Nyx peered in through the window of the dark little home, scratching absently at her neck.  Here, a family of three lived.  A mother, a father, and a little boy.  With her hands shifted to claws, the girl pulled open the window.  Earlier that day, she had slipped into the house when the trio had gone to the back of the home to admire their vegetable garden.  They had left the door open allowing her a quiet entry.  The problem was, she’d only had enough time to break the latch before she had to slip out again.  Now that the family were asleep, she could slip in and take what she needed with more leisure.

She slipped in through the window, her cat eyes adjusting easily to the darkness.  From her visit previously, she knew where they kept the grain and salted meat.  Within the next few minutes, she had a pound of raw beef, wrapped in white paper, and a small bag of grain.  She usually preferred to take from those who wouldn’t notice it–but the family was doing well, so she didn’t feel as bad.

Nyx started to go back the way she’d come, her bare feet making no noise on the stone floor, but a hiss stopped her.

Slowly she turned her head.

Yellow eyes peered at her from the dark of a wood stove.  A black tongue flickered into the light, tentative.

The girl blinked, not moving for a whole minute.  Then slowly she crouched down.  With careful hands, she unwrapped the meat and tore off a small piece.  Then with a light toss, she threw the morsel towards the creature in the shadows.  She turned her attention to wrapping the meat again.  When Nyx looked back, the piece of meat was gone, as was the creature.

Without another pause, the girl left the home, shutting the window after her.

In just a few more weeks, she’d reach the Torreth mountains…and from there…

Nyx didn’t know.

…But she’d paid a toll, and all she could do was keep moving.


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